by A. E. Decker
Illustrated by Galen Dara | Edited by Brian J. White
“I’ve lost my parents,” Rita told the man in the many-colored hat.
“Oh, dear,” he said. “How tragic. Did they explode? Or have an accident skiing down a mountain of vanilla-walnut ice cream? Or were they eaten by a crunchtomumptosaurus?”
“No, they’re not dead,” Rita said patiently. “I’ve lost them.”
“Oh, I see,” the man said, much less interested. “You’ll want Lost and Found then. Second floor.” He jabbed his thumb towards a sign marked “Up,” then went back to tossing golden hoops into the air.
“Isn’t Lost and Found for cellphones and wallets and stuff?” asked Rita.
“No, selkies and walruses are in the basement,” he replied. Shwash, shawsh, sang the golden hoops as they flew higher and higher.
Rita walked towards the “Up” sign, passing the shops with their enchanting wares, around the enormous fountain that formed the center of the Forever Now Mall. The statue of a dragon perched in the middle of the great round pool. Every so often, it breathed a spray of colored water. Rita paused briefly to admire it before moving on. The Forever Now Mall closed in an hour. She had to find her parents.
Where could they have gone? They’d been right behind her in Fantasia Fashions. She’d been looking at the clothing and stifling squeals — she was eleven today, too old to squeal at everything that excited her, even if the clothes were amazing. Some of the shoes trailed rainbow footprints as you walked. There was a dress made from a thousand tiger lilies. She’d just finished admiring a sky-blue jacket that let you hover like a giant kite, turned around, and noticed her parents were gone. She’d tried calling her mother on her cellphone, but they didn’t seem to work in Forever Now.
And they’re always telling me not to wander off, Rita thought, wrinkling her nose. Grown-ups always permitted themselves to do things kids weren’t allowed. Well, it wasn’t all right with her. Her parents had promised to buy her one special present of her own choosing from the Forever Now Mall, and if they didn’t do it tonight, she wouldn’t get one.
Rita didn’t quite understand how it worked, but the Forever Now Mall only opened at odd times, like Wednesdays with full moons, and then only if you had perfectly straight red hair, or could touch your tongue to your nose and say “bitter batter.” Today it was open for dark-haired girls celebrating their eleventh birthdays and nine-year-old boys who could wiggle their ears.
She reached the sign marked “Up” and looked around. There wasn’t an escalator or staircase. Just a smiling lady wearing the uniform of Forever Now’s employees, all crisp red cloth and shining gold buttons. She held a bunch of colorful balloons.
“Second floor?” she asked. Rita nodded, and the smiling lady handed her a yellow balloon. Rita took hold of the string and the balloon lifted her gently. Her toes brushed the dragon’s nose as she drifted over the fountain. It breathed a spray of cool pink water that smelled of strawberries over her.
The balloon deposited her on a platform on the second floor, then popped. “Aw, man!” said Rita. She sighed. No more floating for now. She hoped going down would be half as fun.
A red door was labeled “Lost and Found.” Rita walked over and knocked.
The door opened a crack. “Yes?” said the man in the many-colored hat.
Rita squinted at him. Was it the same man? This one had olive skin instead of brown, and his hair was straight instead of wavy. But his bright green eyes looked the same as those of the man tossing hoops.
“I’ve lost my parents,” she said. This man, she noticed, wore the indigo section of his many-colored hat in front. The man downstairs had had an emerald green stripe forward.
“Oh, dear, how sad,” he said. “Did they—”
“No, they’re not dead,” said Rita. “They’re missing. I turned around and they weren’t there.”
“Well, that was your mistake wasn’t it?” the man in the many-colored hat said, nodding wisely. “Always think twice before turning around, I say. The world can change in the time it takes you to go front to back.”
“Can you help me find my parents?” Rita asked patiently.
He swung the red door wide. “Come on in.”
Boxes and shelves lined all four walls of the room. A long table with a single crooked lamp sat in the very middle. Rita thought the room was no bigger than a closet when she came in, but when she reached the table, she realized she’d have to take many, many more steps to touch the back wall.
The man in the many-colored hat peered at her from under its brim. “Eleven-year-old girl celebrating her birthday,” he muttered. He pinched her wrist between his fingers and checked her pulse with a silver stopwatch. Then he took out a ruler and measured her chin.
“What are you doing?” Rita asked as he lifted a lock of her hair and sniffed her ear.
“Aha!” Going to a shelf, he selected a box. “This is yours,” he said, setting it under the light of the crooked lamp.
Rita peered into the box, which was made of some wonderfully shimmery purple cardboard. She gasped. On top sat Funny-Bunny, the stuffed pink rabbit she’d lost in Oregon when she was four. He was more tattered and dingy than she remembered, but she recognized him instantly. There were old mittens in the box too, and her baby teeth, and a plastic daisy bracelet her grandma had given her. Some of the objects weren’t as memorable. She picked up something that looked like a marble and, for a moment, found herself drifting up into the sky surrounded by a cloud of singing butterflies.
“I’d forgotten that dream,” she said as the butterflies faded.
“Dreams are so very easy to lose,” said the man in the many-colored hat, leaning back against the shelves.
Rita dug through the box. More dream marbles coated its bottom, clicking softly together. “My parents can’t be in here,” she said, looking up. “They’re too big.”
“Australia would disagree.” The man in the many-colored hat gave a shrug. “Perhaps they’re not lost. Did you check the second floor?”
He pushed her out the door. “Well, there you go, silly girl. How can I find them when they may not even be lost?”
The red door shut. Rita looked at the marble containing her butterfly dream, then put it carefully in a pocket and went to explore Forever Now’s second floor.
A kiosk sold mugs of hot melted ice cream topped with snowy mounds of whipped cream. Rita used the birthday money Aunt Mabel had sent her to buy a large chocolate caramel ripple. Its warmth filled her right down to her toes.
What present should I choose? she wondered, taking another sip. She really liked the floating jacket, but there was also the brush that painted with light and the suction gloves that let you climb up walls.
But maybe there was something even more wonderful on the second floor. She looked in the nearest window. It was filled with a display of fancy picture frames, some rough and wooden, some delicate gold filigree. Frames were kind of boring. Rita was about to move on when she noticed something odd. Bending closer, she let out a yelp.
Every picture was of her! She was older in them, but always smiling as she pursued some interesting activity. In one picture, she wore a white coat and carried a stethoscope. In another, she fed a tiger cub while the picture beside it showed her with her arms wrapped around two children. To her right was a picture of her standing behind a movie camera, to her left, one of her standing in front of it. The picture of her in an astronaut’s outfit and walking on the moon made her gasp, while the picture of her with a brush in hand and a smear of paint across her nose made her laugh.
Slightly dizzy, she turned from the window before she wasted all her remaining time staring. Her parents had probably wandered into some boring store, she figured. One that sold furniture, or watches, or dull, thick books filled with numbers. Adults liked places like that. Trouble was, Forever Now didn’t seem to have that kind of store. She passed a shop that sold clockwork insects that hummed or buzzed or sang in tiny, tinny voices. A little boy was at the counter with his parents, buying a blue-green dragonfly. He wiggled his ears at her.
There was a bookstore, but all the books in it had wonderful colored covers. When you opened one, the pictures came to life, hovering above the pages. Knights rode unicorns and wolves padded softly through snowy woods. Rita didn’t dare linger. She quickly searched the aisles for her parents, then left to check the next store.
This one was filled with plush animals. Only they weren’t the usual elephants, tigers, and floppy dogs you found in most toy stores. Rita didn’t recognize a single type of animal, and every one was unique. A big one sitting high on a shelf might have been a yellow bear with a raven’s wings and a squirrel’s tail. She stroked the head of a sleek, white creature that resembled either a fluffy dragon or a very long horse with the paws of a lion. The plushies’ eyes seemed to follow her hopefully as she walked through the store, looking for her parents.
She stopped, catching the gaze of a particularly bright pair of violet eyes. A plushie the size of a cat and the shape of one of the ring-tailed lemurs she’d seen at the zoo was staring right at her. His lavender-blue fur looked softer than the cream topping her drink, and his long, fluffy tail trailed nearly to the floor. Tufts of darker blue fur tipped his bat-like ears.
If he could speak, Rita felt sure he’d say something like “fir-whirp-whurr,” and it would mean, “Hello! I think I like you!”
His name was Ferdinand. Rita didn’t know how she knew, but it was the only proper name for him. “I like you too,” she said, patting his head. “Have you seen my parents?”
“May I help you?”
Rita turned. Another smiling woman in Forever Now’s red uniform stood behind her. “I’m looking for my parents,” Rita told her. “Have you seen them? My mother’s wearing a striped blouse and my father has a Chinese character tattooed on his left hand.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The woman exchanged her smile for a look of concern. “I haven’t seen anyone like that.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll check the next store,” said Rita.
The woman put a hand on her arm. “You can’t just keep looking,” she said. “You have to find them. You can’t leave without your parents, and Forever Now closes in twenty minutes.”
She let Rita go. Rita stared at her, blinking. “But won’t they just make an announcement over the speakers?” she asked.
The woman gave her a little push. “Go. Quickly!”
Rita glanced back at Ferdinand before she left. He looked concerned. If he could speak, he’d say “pur-prem-pur-premur,” and it would mean “Don’t leave me!”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered then ran out of the shop. She didn’t have the money to buy him. Maybe if she found her parents… of course, she still liked the jacket…and the brush…
What had that woman meant, “You can’t just keep looking. You have to find them”? Didn’t you have to do the one to achieve the other? Rita scrubbed her sleeve across her eyes. The happy, floating pleasure of exploring the Forever Now Mall was giving way to prickles of genuine fear. Where were her parents? They must be just as worried about her by now. So why hadn’t someone made an announcement over the speakers, like sensible people always did when someone went missing?
She darted into a store that sold invisible rings, but unless her parents had become invisible too, they weren’t there. They weren’t in the shop with the miniature roller coaster sets either, or in the one with the shoes that allowed you to run like a cheetah and leap into the air like a superhero. She raced to the next one and realized it was the store with the picture frames in the window. She’d reached the beginning. She’d checked all the shops and found no trace of her parents.
“The Forever Now Mall will be closing in fifteen minutes,” a pleasant voice said over the loudspeaker. Rita held her breath, hoping it would add: “Mr. and Mrs. Barrow are waiting for their daughter Rita by the information desk,” but it just clicked off.
Her chest felt tight, her eyes hot and dry. She forced herself to take a breath. She walked to the central area and peered down at the first floor over the railing, hoping to see her parents. The lights below looked dimmer than before. She saw several dark-haired girls and ear-wiggling boys walking towards the exit with their parents. Many of them clutched wonderful toys or new clothes. All were smiling.
Now it was really hard not to let the tears burning her eyes fall. I was supposed to get a present too, she thought. Something special.
Weren’t her parents even looking for her?
Gulping back a sob, she straightened. A flash of lavender-blue caught her attention. It was Ferdinand, sitting in the window of the plushie shop, even though he’d been in an alcove to the side before. He looked concerned, and Rita knew, if he could speak, he’d say something like “kurn-purt-burr” and it would mean “please don’t cry.” Both his blue-tipped ears were folded to the right, pointing towards the red door with the Lost and Found sign pinned to it.
“You’re right,” Rita said to him. “I’ve checked both floors now, so maybe they’re truly lost.” She went to the red door and knocked.
“Yes?” the man in the many-colored hat answered. The royal blue section of his hat was turned to the front. His hair was sandy red and he’d grown a pointed, foxy beard.
“My parents really are lost,” Rita told him.
He lounged against the doorframe. “Really?”
“Really, truly lost?”
“Yes!” Her heart was starting to pound again. “Can you help me find them?”
“The Forever Now Mall will be closing in ten minutes,” the voice said over the loudspeaker.
“Find who?” asked the man in the many-colored hat.
Rita’s racing heart slammed suddenly up against an invisible wall then sank in her chest. “Find who?” She’d known just a second ago and now she couldn’t remember.
“Never mind,” said the man in the many-colored hat. He put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll find a place for you here. Maybe you could help run the hot melted ice cream stand and sample new flavors every day. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
Rita wrenched away from him. She ran to the railing again and looked down, even though she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. “Hello?” she called.
No one looked up. In fact, not a single person stood below. The lights were very dim and the dragon in the fountain had stopped spraying colored water and appeared to be stifling a yawn. Lifting her head, Rita gazed around wildly, hoping to see something that would fill the alarming hole in her memory.
The pictures in the window of the frame store had changed. They all still showed an image of her, but in every one, she wore the crisp red uniform of a Forever Now employee. Her smile now looked like something she’d pinned on like a nametag.
She clutched the railing. “Why are they all the same now?” she asked the man in the many-colored hat.
“Because your life is forever now, now,” he replied. He spun his hat so the orange section faced forward, and his sandy-red hair exploded into a mass of glossy dark curls while his beard vanished. “You’ve lost your other options.”
Rita stared at the pictures. “Change back,” she whispered, but they all remained the image of her dressed in Forever Now’s uniform, identical except for the frames.
“You lose options as you grow up anyway,” said the man in the many-colored hat. “Did you know that? Making one choice means you lose another. It’s hard. Why not be glad you don’t have to do it?”
Even before the pictures changed, Rita had known she couldn’t become everything they’d shown her. But it wasn’t fair that she’d somehow, suddenly, lost even the dream of being something else.
Dreams are so very easy to lose.
Rita jumped. The marble rolled loosely in her pocket. Drawing it out, she looked at it. How many dreams had she lost over the years? The bottom of her box had been covered in them. She’d forgotten them easily, uncaringly, because dreams seemed so common and simple to make.
But if you always let your dreams go, how could they ever become reality?
“The Forever Now Mall is closing in five minutes,” the pleasant voice said over the loudspeaker.
Rita looked up at the man in the many-colored hat. “I have something for you,” she said.
His head tilted to the side. “Really? What is it?”
“This.” She tossed the marble onto the floor and it rolled up against his foot. When he bent down to look at it, Rita snatched off his hat.
“Hey!” he cried, drabbling into a plain little brown man: brown hair, brown skin, brown clothes; as unremarkable as a slice of cardboard.
Rita dangled the hat over the railing. “It’s not nice, having your choices taken from you, is it?” she asked.
He glared, clutching his bare head.
“Change them back.” She nodded to the pictures.
His eyes widened. Even they were brown now. Then, amazingly, he chuckled and straightened his tie. “I can’t.”
Rita’s jaw dropped. Redness boiled up inside her, twisting her thoughts. Her fingers tightened on the hat’s brim. She imagined throwing it into the pool below. She imagined all its colors running together into one ugly blur and the man never being able to change his appearance again.
It would feel good. Oh, yes, I’ll do it. I’ll laugh, too.
She stopped herself an instant before her wrist made the flick-and-toss. “Why can’t you do it?” she asked.
“Why did you come to Forever Now?” he replied.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure. The answer worked its way around the gap in her memory, careful not to fall in. “I came…to get a present,” she said.
“But if you stay, you can have as many presents as you like.” He spread his arms. “Anything Forever Now can offer. So why are you angry?”
Ferdinand was still sitting in the window of the plushie shop. Rita thought he’d be happy about her staying, but both his ears drooped. If he could speak, he wouldn’t just now, because he was too sad. Rita looked away.
“I don’t want a present,” she said. No, that wasn’t true. She shook her head and touched her brow. “I mean…I want what I lost more.”
“Oh, dear, did you lose something?” asked the man not wearing a many-colored hat.
Rita started getting mad again. “You know I did.”
“Is it gone forever?”
“If it’s gone forever, how can I…” Rita’s words came slower as she thought about what she was saying “…ever hope to find it?”
The man not wearing a many-colored hat laughed, a much nicer laugh than Rita would’ve expected him to make, without a trace of a snicker. “Exactly!” He knelt, putting his hands on her shoulders so they were eye-to-eye. “The things that are truly lost are gone. The things that are truly lost we can’t remember, because we’ve forgotten to even look for them. Now, do you think what you’ve lost is truly gone?”
Rita shook her head.
“Do you want me to help you find it?”
Rita hesitated then nodded.
“Are you sure?” A hint of green flickered in his brown eyes. “Remember, when you make one choice, you lose another. If you choose this, you don’t get your birthday present choice.”
That’s not fair! All the other kids got presents, and I’ll probably never get to the Forever Now Mall again!
She swallowed it down. “I’m sure. Please help me find what I’ve lost.”
He held out his hand. “Give me my hat.”
Rita gave it to him. He put it on, turning a new section forward. Ever after, Rita couldn’t say what its exact color was. Something like a burnt toffee orange, but also something like a sea-blue shading to sunflower around the edges.
The man in the many-colored hat’s eyes glowed, green again. His hair lengthened into a flow of silver. His back rippled, then two golden-white swan’s wings unfurled between his shoulders.
And pushed her right over the railing.
Rita was too startled to scream. As she fell, she caught a last glimpse of the pictures in the frame shop. Images of herself grinned back at her, all wearing different outfits. Surgeon. Painter. Private investigator, acrobat, mother, inventor. One picture of her dressed in Forever Now’s uniform remained in the far corner of the window, but this time, her smile looked genuine.
Halfway to the ground, the man in the many-colored hat caught her. His great, golden-white wings beat back the air. Rita’s fall turned into a swoop. She gave a startled laugh as a great gust of wind bellied up, ruffling her hair.
When she finished her laugh, she remembered. Her parents! They were the ones who’d brought her here, promised her a present. How could she have forgotten them?
As the man in the many-colored hat glided her towards the first floor, she spotted her parents, standing by the exit door. Both waved frantically. Her mother looked as if she’d been crying.
The man in the many-colored hat dropped her lightly to the floor. Rita ran to her parents and hugged them both. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m here. We’re all here now.”
Securely buckled into the back seat, Rita stared out the car window as they drove away. Distance stole the details of the Forever Now Mall. It vanished in wisps, like a dream.
“I’m so sorry, Rita,” her mother said from the front seat. “I got an urgent call from your grandma. I had to go outside to take it. She’s all right, thank goodness, but I lost track of the time.”
Rita didn’t think the explanation was that simple, but she nodded.
“We’ll take you to the Southville Mall tomorrow and buy you a present there,” said her father. “We’ll get sundaes too. How about that?”
Rita smiled sadly. Whatever dreams her parents had set aside to get here, with her, she thought they’d turned out pretty cool. And an afternoon at Southville would be fun, yes, and hot fudge sundaes delicious.
But not the same. Not at all. But she’d made her choice and she wasn’t sorry.
Well, maybe a bit sorry. The taste of hot melted ice cream lingered in her mouth as she turned from the window with a sigh.
She gasped. Ferdinand sat on the seat beside her. His tufted ears perked forward and his violet eyes shone. Rita knew, if he could speak, he’d say “whirupwirup-prrrn” and it would mean “I’m coming home to stay with you forever.”
She hugged him hard. His fur was as silky as the touch of whipped cream melting on her tongue.
“Rita? You all right back there, honey?” asked her mother.
“Yes,” she replied. A single, white-gold feather shimmered behind Ferdinand’s ear. Grinning through her tears, she hugged him again. “Everything’s just great now.”